Marking an important shift in U.S. education, a high-level advisory panel is calling for creation of voluntary national curriculum standards to say what American schoolchildren ought to know, and for a system of tests to determine what students have mastered.
The recommendations, which appear in a report to be released later this month, represent rare consensus among Administration officials, education-minded governors, congressional leaders, teachers' unions and other education groups. And they suggest that in its drive to improve the schools, American education may be moving away from the decentralization of policy and curriculum that has always been its hallmark.
The congressionally appointed panel, called the National Council for Education Standards and Testing, urges creation of a federally funded successor agency to advance the idea of national standards and tests. The new agency should help develop the standards and tests and give its blessing to the standards, the council's report recommends.
The panel left unresolved some hotly controversial issues, and the effort to create a national system could still easily fail, panel members acknowledged. Yet the report nonetheless represents a milestone: For the first time a general agreement has been reached on the idea of using such standards and tests to spur improvement by school systems and individual students.
"The major power structures in American education have now agreed on this idea," said Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C. "That's never happened before."
Said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime advocate of the idea: "That all these people could agree is some sort of miracle."
The panel members insist that the standards are not an effort to set a national curriculum--a notion that has long been anathema to American educators. Rather, their goal is to describe the core knowledge that students in subject areas need to be taught.
In science, for example, the standard might prescribe that students have a basic understanding of the biological functions of plant and animal structures.
The report calls for a system of tests to judge individual student performance, and others to judge how well larger groups of students are performing. Even though the tests are intended to be voluntary, states and school districts could feel considerable pressure to administer them if their results were used as a basis for scholarships, college admissions or hiring, for example.
"Once you've got them, schools will feel compelled to use them for competitive reasons," said Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), a panel member and former school superintendent and principal.
Shanker, for one, said he believes it may take five to 10 years to work out a system of tests and standards that is technically and politically acceptable. He argued that such a system would help teachers by prescribing the essentials of a curriculum and would set standards that would give students the incentives and penalties to make them perform.
"Kids in high school, like adults, are not going to work hard unless there's something in it for them," Shanker said.
Work on standards already has begun in several areas. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has developed a set of mathematics standards; the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities last month awarded educators at UCLA a $1.6-million grant to develop teaching standards in history.
National standards and tests were advocated in the education reform plan unveiled by President Bush and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander in April, and the White House is expected to endorse the panel's recommendations.
But as the proposals are debated further, opposition is still likely to emerge from those who fear the tests would be unfair to handicapped and underprivileged students.
Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Assn., said many students in big urban districts are sent to school from troubled homes without the proper nutrition, health care and even day care services that they deserve. "If we don't treat them right, how can we expect them to perform?" he asked.
Some teachers also are wary of such tests for fear the results might eventually be used to guide decisions on salaries and promotions.
The controversy that has surrounded the standards and tests forced compromises on a number of issues.
Because of concerns that the tests could unfairly judge poor, minority and handicapped children, the report concluded it would be "inappropriate" to tie penalties or rewards to the tests until they have been fully developed and students have had time to master material set forth in the standards.
The council also backed away from prescribing "school delivery standards" that would have been used to judge whether schools had enough money and equipment for their programs. The idea of such standards grew out of a concern that students alone should not be held responsible for learning.
But the idea of outsiders applying such standards to local schools drew a strong protest from Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the panel's co-chairman, who considered it an infringement of state and local prerogatives.
The council backed off, agreeing to recommend that states collectively develop such performance standards. Each state would then choose which of the criteria it wished to apply to its schools, the panel said.
Also rejected were the arguments of some on the panel that the new agency should actively develop examinations, rather than leaving that task to others.
In the draft report in circulation this week, the council said the successor agency would not try to develop the tests, or even give them any sort of "Good Housekeeping" seal. Instead, it would certify the "principles" that should go into the tests, said Alexander.
The report recommends that the new agency include educators, state and local officials and members of the public. The agency would give its blessing to standards and tests, subject to approval of the National Education Goals Panel, a body that was set up by federal and state officials to oversee progress in meeting the national education goals.
It is now up to Congress to decide whether to create and fund such an agency.
Chester Finn Jr., a panel member and informal adviser to Alexander, said the council's work was a process of political compromise that "was not always pretty. . . . But there's no doubt in my mind that in five years we will have these systems."